“Camus said that accepting the absurdity of everything around us is just one step. It should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”
A ventilator breathed for the 14-year-old boy in the bed next to mine at Massachusetts General Hospital’s intensive-care unit. Jared had been celebrating the Fourth of July with his family at the beach. It was a perfect summer day on Cape Cod – sunny and hot. He’d run through the water to dive into the waves like so many have done in our oceans. But his angle wasn’t right. Or a swell pushed him off balance. Or the Atlantic tide had created an irregular dune beneath the water. Whatever the cause, Jared’s forehead connected with the sandy bottom. His skinny teen body followed, bent his neck back, and severed his spinal cord.
On the same summer afternoon that Jared’s paltry weight broke his neck, I’d been hit head-on by a car doing thirty miles per hour. My bicycle and I shattered against two tons of steel and tempered glass.
Jared, my neighbor in Mass-General’s ICU, was paralyzed from the neck down. I don’t know if he’s alive 15 years later. If so, he is still paralyzed. Meanwhile, after a couple months of physical and speech therapy following my accident, I went to college as planned. I got back on my bicycle. I held books in my hands and wrote papers and embarked on the rest of my life.
How did I escape Jared’s fate?
I have no reasonable explanation. I have nothing to credit with my good fortune and Jared’s rotten break.
Not just this once either. I own a vast catalog of moments when the universe didn’t crush me. Like that day I plummeted headfirst through a hatch in our three-story treehouse and walked away unscathed. Like that time I accidentally shot my step-brother with a bow and arrow, but the arrow was denied entry to a lung by one skinny rib. Like the fall I took rock climbing when my belayer had only just grabbed the rope again after getting stabbed with cactus spines that had been hitchhiking on the rope. The list goes on and on.
I’m not alone. I imagine that, like me, you’ve fortuitously dodged some bullets in your day. And some you haven’t.
As time passes, I more deeply understand how we’re at the whim of forces beyond our control. Everything – motorists passing on the highways and meteorites plummeting toward Earth and freak irregularities of beach sand – it all unfolds here with a complexity that defies pat comprehension.
Still, many people claim to understand and pretend to be masters of fate. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, said, “People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.” Lucky people say these things as if hard work and good sense are a recipe for serendipity. Tell that to Sudanese children born into abject poverty, disease, and malnutrition. Explain sensible acts to homeless families in LA who own zero resources – financial or scholarly. Expect more from women subjugated by ISIS in a land from which there is no escape. Criticize that eighteen-year-old for poor judgement when he contracted a rare and fatal brain cancer. The award for supreme arrogance goes to Earl Wilson, who said, “Success is simply a matter of luck. Ask any failure.” The blindness required to make such a statement is also just another product of happenstance. Mr. Wilson simply hasn’t had the opportunity or insight to see that the clockwork of the universe does not hinge on our petty desires as we scurry around in search of food, money, and love.
A friend of mine recently wrote: “I’m not a big fan of the term ‘luck.’” I share his discomfort with the notion of fate or destiny. And I also acknowledge that people everywhere should make good choices. However, I just don’t know what else to call this thing that keeps us alive… for now.
The more one delves without prejudice into the causes of life’s twists and turns, the more random they seem. Accident and serendipity are doled out with perfect irregularity, which provides a somewhat irksome explanation as to why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Solace might be found, I suppose, in the idea that strokes of misfortune aren’t aimed with malicious intent. But by the same token, we must also acknowledge that no credit or praise is due when a lucky break falls into our lap.
I happen to agree completely with Larry King on this point, who said, “Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.”
It’s easy to kid ourselves. After all, a strong illusion holds my world together. It’s the illusion of control. I choose this. I allow that. I plan this. I expect that. I think of my life as a clock, and I am the time-keeper. Every now and then, though, when a rock falls nearby at the crag or when a bear steps from behind a boulder to stare at me hungrily or when my phone rings in the middle of the night, I remember that I am but a small boat on a wild and changeable sea.
That collision with an automobile pushed me right to the edge. In the end, I walked away with a shattered helmet, a few deficits of memory, and a jaw that’s a little cockeyed. Even fifteen years after getting crushed by that car, I still have only one story to tell. It is a story of luck — in every sense, good and bad. It is the same story that moves my fingers on this keyboard and recently broke my friend’s back and engineered your remarkable eyes. We are pinballs in a crazy game of life, whether we want to believe it or not.
For the time being, I’m going to embrace the one thing that makes more sense to me with each turn of this planet: gratitude. We live on a tsunami of happenstance. Riding this crest, I will dissolve into appreciation, because anxiety about things outside my control only robs these days of their terrifying and precious beauty.
Forget fear. I will run. I will breathe. I will laugh. And cry. I will take chances and love people and be awestruck by the tree outside my window and my wife’s perfect smile. I will appreciate every goddamn moment given to me by this savage universe. I will do these things until my luck runs out. And I will do it all with the hope that a kind destiny favors my path and yours.
When I was six years old, my parents embarked on a long and awful divorce. When I was eighteen, getting hit by a car sent me into the twilight zone where years of memory were lost, my intellect plummeted to the level of a second grader, and speech and physical therapy became a way of life. Two days after I collided with that car, my grandmother was killed. I have suffered depression that stewed me in the fog of private desolation for weeks on end. I have slogged through three surgeries to fix broken bones.
I share these stories of adversity not because I feel special. Exactly the opposite. All of this stuff has taught me one very important lesson: behind each person I meet, behind every friend and family member, there are histories like my own. Everybody has suffered loss and trauma and fear – many folks far more than I have.
Sometimes we get a peek behind the curtain of people’s lives, a glimpse into the experience of those we encounter and know and love. When this happens, when we see the hurdles faced by others, a crucial aspect of being human becomes clear.
Nobody lives without hardship.
I worked with a young woman whose family suffered five deaths over two years. A friend once told me, voice trembling, about the night she was violently raped. I know a young teen who pines for the day she can move out of her house, away from her alcoholic mother. Due to an injury, my wife can no longer pursue her life’s passion. My stepfather has limped around since a landmine in Vietnam nearly removed his legs altogether. My best friend’s blood disorder almost killed him.
Though I can’t fully comprehend what it feels like to own these histories, I can try. What if we saw one another as those difficult events? What if I wore my brain injury as a hat? What if your irritating neighbor donned her daughter’s death as an apron? What if the moody boy walking past your house every afternoon bounced not a basketball but instead dribbled the day his mother left?
I think we’d be gentler with each other. Also, some allowances might come in handy. I have a rotten short-term and working memory since being hit by that car. Please cut me a little slack when I forget your name. Each person around you has some kind of deficit caused by misfortune. Less patience. Only one leg. A perpetual sense of loss. Estranged family. Depression. Hopelessness. Anxiety.
Of course, nobody should be defined solely by the horrible stuff they’ve faced, so we shouldn’t stop here. Instead, we can acknowledge the past and go on to appreciate its products.
In honor of my loving parents and the upstanding adults who guided me growing up, I want to be known as a man who helps a youth mentoring program thrive. My friend told me she accepted rape as part of her past but will not allow it to ruin her future; she became a psychiatrist. That young teen with the dysfunctional mother ought to be cheered for her resilience in the face of astonishing odds. With soccer no longer in the cards, my wife cultivates a new passion – rock climbing. After Vietnam, my stepfather could never go for long hikes, but he still established his own thriving small business and recently bought a bicycle that he rides every day. My friend with the blood disorder completed an Ironman-distance triathlon – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26-mile run – in 11 hours 55 minutes.
At times, life is difficult for everyone. If we’re lucky, our friends and family and mentors walk beside us along the way to provide support when we need it most. As a result, many people I know have transformed travails into triumphs. In a world short on empathy, it’s good to exercise compassion because we don’t know what kind of tribulations might be rocking somebody’s world.
Like that young woman who watched so many family members die or commit suicide: she endured more than her fair share of misfortune. Somehow, she bounced back over the years instead of regressing. Sure, she owns some heavy baggage. But she keeps driving forward despite these moments of pain I will never understand.
Maybe I’m kinder to her, knowing what I know. The shape of your abundant past is a mystery to me, but with a little imagination and humility, I can be kinder to you too.
Originally published in the Moab Sun News.
When I was five years old, I said to my mother, “I don’t ever want to grow up.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because,” I explained earnestly, “adults do not run everywhere they go.”
I love running. I have run marathons and ultra marathons for fun and in competition, over trails and roads, on five continents. Sometimes I ran all day, lost in the beauty of mountain tracks and drinking the sweet nectar of what it means to be alive. After I’d been hit by a car and suffered amnesia that left me confused and groping for an identity, running was still there for me.
Long story short: even though my knees aren’t able to travel at pace for such distances nowadays, running has always been an important part of my life.
So when I overheard a conversation recently while eating Indian food at a restaurant in Provo, it shook my world a little bit. The woman at a neighboring table told her husband about a mountain marathon taking place in the Wasatch Range. “All day they’re running on trails up there,” she said.
The man nodded, forked more tikka masala into his mouth, and said, “Hm.”
“I know,” she intoned with a grim shake of her head. She paused, looked at him seriously, and asked, “What’s wrong with people?”
What’s wrong with people?
I’ll be the first to admit sometimes it’s difficult to understand why folks do the things they do. For example, it remains a mystery to me why many people enjoy cooking. I don’t even like to heat water on the stove for oatmeal in the morning. And don’t get me started on math. Nothing could more thoroughly boggle my mind than the idea of somebody sitting down to a math proof and thinking, “This is fun!”
Honestly, I don’t even know why running is one of my favorite activities. Probably something in my DNA and in my past makes running light up the regions of my brain associated with pleasure and gratification.
Here’s what we do know, thanks to science and research: animal populations, including humans, thrive when a broad assortment of traits exist in their gene pool. The same principle grounds a common adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity strengthens a species’ shot at survival and success. So before we ask why anyone would bother to become a chef or a mathematician, maybe it would be wise to remember the good that comes from a broad range of skills and interest within our society.
After all, we like to eat, especially delicious food prepared by talented people. And it’s nice to know accountants keep our balance sheets balanced while engineers keep our planes in the air. For humanity, mathematics is good.
Our civilization depends on specialization. Only through a vast division of labor can we hope to develop new life-saving drugs, beautiful art, and advances in technology that increase our knowledge and improve our lives. Together, every person applying unique strengths and talents, we are far stronger than any one of us alone, not just for the horsepower, but also for the remarkable accuracy of these many brains working in synchrony.
James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, explains collective knowledge can actually be more insightful than individual understanding. For example, if you ask a large group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, the average of all those guesses will usually be extremely close to the actual number of jellybeans, often nearer than any single estimation.
When I remember that woman’s comment – What’s wrong with people? – I can’t help but think she fell victim to a very human tendency, that of dismissing others who are different. But more than that, she missed a very powerful question indeed: What’s right with people?
Answer: a whole lot.
We come in many beautiful shapes, colors, and sizes, with smart insights in every realm, from cuisine to mathematics, with a taste for many things, from gardening to running marathons. As a child, I was wrong. Adults do run everywhere they go. It’s just sometimes running looks a lot like chess and woodworking and mountain biking and doing community service.
No moment offers more opportunity for misunderstandings and judgements than our election season. This is when our different views and opinions collide and vie for distinction, just as they should. However, while navigating this election season, it would probably do us good to grant those different voices respect because only in our diversity are we most brilliant.
Originally published 9/17/14 in the Moab Sun News.
“The trouble is, you think you have time.” –Buddha
On their deathbeds, people often have the same regrets. It’s a wonder, because we vary wildly in interest and religion, in political opinion and leisure activities, in earnings and luck. Yet at the end, when looking back, we are united.
What do people wish they had done with their time here on Earth? Here’s a hint: they don’t wish they had made more money.
In her article, How To Buy Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky reports people on the brink of death wish they had spent more time “connecting with friends, nurturing intimate relationships, socializing at parties, consuming art, music, and literature, learning new languages and skills, honing talents, and volunteering at our neighborhood hospital, church, or animal shelter.”
Most of these things require little or no money. Of course, money can help us fit more of these activities into our day-to-day lives. But money and expensive purchases aren’t the ticket to real well-being.
“In wealthier nations, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness,” Dr. Martin Seligman states In Authentic Happiness. “In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over $125 million dollars—are only slightly happier than the average American.”
People who neglect other aspects of life for money tend to be less satisfied with their lives, but you won’t see these findings portrayed in popular media or explicitly added to the curriculum at school. Consumerism has become synonymous with the American Dream. More and more education seems to be about this “Race to the Top,” an overzealous Cold War mentality that just won’t die, that pits the world’s sixteen-year-olds against each other in an absurd battle to see which nation’s children have mastered skills relevant to only one domain: economics.
Don’t get me wrong. Education prepares many to graduate into productive and lucrative jobs. A healthy income may fulfill basic needs – even provide considerable pleasure (like gourmet food, lavish furnishings, purchase power) – but income generation alone neglects a huge part of what it means to be human.
What can moneymaking neglect? According to psychologists, two other parts of life are often overlooked: engagement and meaning. Engagement is about using your unique talents to accomplish tasks or overcome challenges, like navigating a tricky jeep route or playing your favorite sport. Getting lost in this experience is called “flow,” which creates happiness and gratification.
A meaningful life is one connected to a greater movement, something like our community, school district, a club, or church. Joining something bigger than ourselves allows happiness to transcend the limits of one, especially when we use our unique talents to help others.
Some realize too late that money isn’t enough, that they’ve devoted too much of their precious time to getting ahead. They want to go back for a favorite hobby with a friend, quality time with their spouse, laughing with their kids, helping at the food bank, meeting new people. As individuals living in a wealthy nation, most of us have opportunities to enrich and balance our lives not only with wealth but with engagement and meaning too.
Already we’re a step ahead; we live in Moab, flow capital of the United States, where vacationers seek to make memories. I, for one, expect I could earn more money elsewhere. I could save more for retirement. I could live in a bigger house. However, you and I know intuitively that more and bigger isn’t necessarily better. That’s why we choose to be here and leave the opulence to others.
For we are rich in other ways.
We are rich in vistas. In rivers and trails and red rock towers. We live here for the public lands and silent spaces, for likeminded people. Tucked into this desert canyon, we are part of a community fueled by adventure and grounded in an understanding only recently described by science but known in every human heart, that experience outweighs possessions.
Every day this beautiful place reminds me of a wonderful idea. So do my mountain biking neighbors. And the kind people and businesses of Moab. Even the tourists who seek excitement in our pristine region of cliffs and wild canyons…
It is possible to live without regrets.
(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)
I have found a role model. She isn’t fast or renowned. She’s old. And slow. And arthritic. She’s got bad knees.
Every day I see this elderly woman ride her bicycle through town. Rain, snow, cold, wind, heat – they do not stop her. Gaze forward, dauntless and stoic, she grinds through the slush, while I drive past in my SUV and urge my blasting heater to warm up.
For years I have seen her bicycling through the streets of Moab, and always I wanted to know why. Why was she out there? Why did she never take a break?
I wanted to know so badly, I decided to ask her.
Suddenly it became difficult to catch this silent cyclist of the streets. There she was! But I was late for a meeting. There she was! But I had promised my wife this trip to the supermarket would be quick. There she was! But once I’d found a place to park, she was gone, vanished up the bike path along Mill Creek.
Finally, one sunny day in late February, fates aligned. I stopped and hailed her, standing astride my bike. She stopped too. “Hello,” she said.
“Hi. I see you riding out here all the time. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your story?”
With a smile and a humble shrug, Julie Podmore invited me over to her house to talk. Apparently her ride couldn’t be interrupted.
Her story was more magnificent and far-reaching than I could have imagined.
Born in Toronto to a free-spirit father who flew dirigibles in World War I, Julie was given an early taste of the outdoors. They camped and hiked. He told stories of his adventures in the cavalry and in China and in Alaska living with the Eskimos. She was encouraged to seek a path to the places that breathed life into her soul.
Julie’s path would lead across North America and throughout Europe and Asia. In 1957, at a time when few women rock climbed and even fewer attempted alpine peaks, Julie found herself in uncharted territory. She said, “This was a man’s world. When we did a traverse of the Matterhorn, we were up there for 28 hours, up one ridge and down the other. We met a group of Germans on the way down, and they asked me if I had climbed it. They looked absolutely amazed because they have never known a woman to go up there.”
England, Norway, France, Mexico, Nepal, India – she traveled in search of the sacred. “I loved the mountains,” she said. “When you start climbing, it’s like having a relationship with the mountains. You feel closer to nature, and, I think, closer to God. To me, there’s more spirituality in that than in going to church.”
From a first ascent above the arctic circle in Norway to ski instructing at Sugar Bowl in California to picking apricots in the Okanagan Valley, Julie’s route directed her everywhere there was anything to climb. She knew many legendary climbers before they became legends. We shared stories of obscure crags in the Adirondacks where we both had serendipitously climbed, separated by only a half century.
Sitting in Julie’s home, surrounded by her stunning oil paintings of the Tetons, shocked by a lady who had been a pioneer for women in the Golden Age, I still wanted to know: why ride?
“I moved to Moab in 1988. I would get up every morning and put on my boots and hike up on the cliffs. My knees finally gave out on me. I thought, I’ve got to do something for exercise, so I started cycling instead. I’ve always had a bicycle. When I lived as a secretary in Toronto, I didn’t have a car, so I used to ride my bicycle to work. I had grease all around the bottom of my dresses.”
“I see you out there in all kinds of weather,” I said. “It must be hard sometimes when the weather’s bad.”
“This arthritis gives me a lot of pain. And if I don’t get the circulation going, it gives me more pain. So I will go out when I’d much sooner crawl back into bed. When I don’t do it, I feel really decadent. Sitting around won’t do me any good.
When she couldn’t climb any longer, Julie took up hiking. When she couldn’t hike any longer, she tuned her bicycle. Every day I see Julie pedal through my neighborhood, and I celebrate my new role model, someone who has quietly persevered through a broken back and over snowy ridgelines and despite arthritis. Julie Podmore is a hero, and she reminds me to appreciate the stories hidden behind people we see everyday.
Through Julie, I understand the courage it takes to see out your wild life in this wild world.
It nearly killed me.
The human mind at thirteen years is uniquely impressionable. I proved it while working on a dairy farm for one year in northern Vermont. Getting kicked, bulled over, swished in the face with nasty brown tails, and sandwiched between heavy cow bodies became normal. Milking another species’ mammary glands went from weird to conventional. Throwing hay bale after hay bale turned so routine I didn’t need gloves to cover my calloused hands.
The unfathomable idea that I could learn a hundred cows’ names, that I could distinguish in a herd between the short and tall, broad and skinny, all those black and white flanks, became fathomable. Their physical markings took shape, and so did their personalities.
There was Claire, a proud registered Holstein from Canada who never kicked. There was Bertha, a bulldozing behemoth respected by the herd (and the farmers) for her penchant for careening through bodies and buildings in a dash to feed. There was Babe, sweetest cow in the barn who always turned in the stanchion to lick at your shoulder and ask for a head scratch.
Only when I look back do I recognize how different this life was, how I became accustomed to a mode of existence worlds apart from where my path would lead. A thirsty teen mind had me following the farmers around pastures and through barns as if they would eventually reveal the big secret and guide me to Shangri-La.
Now, I did learn some handy things. How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. The signs of an infected udder. How to pump a zerk full of grease. Painting. Animal husbandry. Foretelling rain. Investing: I bought a pretty little golden Jersey cow and a piglet to be sold off later at a profit.
They taught me a lot, those tough hick farmers of the northcountry. Dillon, the foreman, showed me how to bob a cow’s tail using a strong rubber ring, and he warned me with a grin to behave myself with his daughter, my girlfriend at the time, or I’d find myself getting the rubber band squeeze. He said it with a smile, but it was only half jest.
Meanwhile, as we milked the cows, Dillon’s eighteen-year-old son regaled me with tales of adventure in the nightclubs of Quebec, where he would pick fights and head-butt people. He proudly instructed me how to grab a man by the lapels and use the peak of one’s forehead, hardest part of the skull, to crack him right in the face, to break open his nose. Even at thirteen, I wasn’t comfortable subscribing to a head-butting lifestyle. But I nodded along and took it as fair warning like his father’s.
Patrick, gentle vegetarian owner of the farm, taught me death was part of farming. When calves would perish inexplicably or were stillborn into the gutter as sometimes happened, he told me to drag their lifeless little bodies to the woods where hungry coyotes waited on margins of human society. While walking the fence lines far out in the summer pasture one afternoon, we found a dead heifer. How had she died? Patrick didn’t know, but he said it was statistically normal.
I also learned how dangerous a farm can be.
I plummeted through a trapdoor while running through the loft. A pipe clamp in the milk room went through my palm. An electric fence powerful enough to cover forty miles of wire dropped me to my knees.
Other dangers were easy to avoid. Every farmer can tell stories of a tractor’s PTO (power-takeoff, a spinning drive shaft used to charge mowers and balers) tearing off limbs and scalps, killing people. It was one of those obvious hazards like the cancer hidden inside the cigarettes Dillon smoked, easily avoided.
One thing, however, I discovered alone. Thankfully I managed to do it without dying: one of the most dangerous things in the world is a human being.
Dillon and I had gone out to collect the herd from pasture for dawn milking. The cool fields were heavy with dew not yet burned off by the rising sun. “I’ll go around back and push them,” Dillon said. He set off across the neighboring paddock. As always, I slipped through the gap and shooed the herd, asked them for a bit of room to unlatch the wooden gate.
Then it happened. A sound like a gunshot rang out from behind the herd. As a joke, Dillon had thrown a long-lost piece of cordwood high overhead onto the steel roof of the lumber shack. The sound broke through still morning air. Bang!
The herd moved as one. They surged away from the sound and directly at me. Suddenly I was pinned against a gate that bent under their collective weight. My feet off the ground, my breath gone, I tried to beat them back. All that kept me from being trampled to death under four hundred hooves was a brittle old piece of chain looped around a fencepost.
And over their heads I saw Dillon. His smile disappeared and his hands went to rest on top of his hat as if he were witness to calamity. Then he took off running, trying to get around to help, to push them back.
By the time Dillon reached me, the cows’ panic had eased. I had squeezed out the gap and stood on wobbly legs, gasping for breath. Dillon grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I– I think so.”
“It was an accident,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hit the roof. Damn it, I’m sorry.”
I knew he was lying. He’d intended to spook them, maybe not quite so bad. But I hadn’t died. “It’s alright,” I said.
Today I remember my time on the farm – hundreds of days of shoveling crap and stacking hay and milking cows and feeding pigs – as an ad hoc study of the breadth of human experience. That year was the first to truly grab me and thrust me into a new world. Since then, I’ve won my fair share of weird and wonderful adventures thanks to one peculiar piece of luck. I carry it with me everywhere, in my heart. It’s a lovely length of rusted chain that saved me from becoming a statistical casualty in a life as unpredictable as yours.
Failure is underrated.
I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.
With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.
One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.
This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.
As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.
I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.
So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.
According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.
The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.
So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.
I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”
By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.
(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)
A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.
Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.
With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”
I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.
I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.
When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.
That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.
We gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.
We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!
I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.
They had dreams.
I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.
After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.
“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.
“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”
I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.
I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.
It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.
Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?
I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.
When I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”
Duly warned, my friends and family waited.
Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”
Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.
But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?
A hand in mine.
I. Love. You.
When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.
I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.
I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”
Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”
The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.
In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.
I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.
So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.
As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:
I. Love. You.
I love you America. I love you fellow American.
(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)